Johnson’s Assessment of the Race of Metaphysical Poets.
In the Life of Cowley, Dr. Samuel Johnson has made a critical assessment of the works of the metaphysical poets, especially of Cowley. Metaphysical poets appear as a new school of thought led by John Donne. Metaphysical poetry has been inspired by a philosophic conception of the universe. It gives the role assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence. Chiefly the metaphysical poets wrote two types of poems- love poems and religious poems.
John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Cowley usually wrote love poem but Henry Vaughn wrote religious poems. However, Johnson as a critic has thrown a stream of light on both the merits and demerits of the metaphysical poets. He has examined not only the poems of Cowley but of other metaphysical poets.
The Life of Cowley mainly depends on a book written by Mr. Sprat. But Johnson does not fail to give his own ideas and opinions. To assess Cowley, he has compared him with Milton. He has shown that Cowley and Milton may be compared but the advantage seems to lie on the side of Cowley. Milton expresses the thought of the ancients in their language. But Cowley accommodates the diction of Rome to his own conception. Cowley wrote with narrow view and laid emphasis on the temporary prejudices. The intellectual pleasures were neglected.
As has already been said, the metaphysical poets wrote love poems and religious poems. Donne, Marvell, Cowley and Vaughn wrote both these types of poems. Johnson says that the love poems of the metaphysical poets have a different character and philosophy. The love poems of Cowley are obscure and full of perplexity. Love changes it character with the passage of time. The attention of ‘flesh’ in love changes gradually. Everything is inconstant. Primitive incest is now a taboo. According to Johnson, the tears of lovers are of great poetical accounts and it is difficult to be properly comprehended. To find its proper meaning, the readers have to read it again and again.
The metaphysical poets were men of learning and they tried to expose their learning in their poems. They could not copy life and nature. Their thoughts were often new but seldom natural. They used conceits to serve their purpose. Wit is the main ornament of metaphysical poetry. Metaphysical poetry has more music and much sentiment. Ordinary readers were baffled with this new style and the use of wit and conceit.
Thus, we see that John has praised the metaphysical poets specially Cowley for their matter and manner. Even he ranks Cowley over Donne for his remarkable style of writing. Through the evaluation of Cowley, Johnson has made a critical assessment of metaphysical poetry also.